Ahead of its release in Australian cinemas on May 11, we had the absolute pleasure of speaking to writer-director Brandon Cronenberg about his latest feature film, ‘Infinity Pool’. Starring Alexander Skarsgård (‘The Northman’), Cleopatra Coleman (‘Dopesick’) and Mia Goth (‘Pearl’), Brandon’s third feature is a disorienting and darkly amusing exploration of the intersections of morality, identity and technology.
While staying at an isolated island resort, James(Alexander Skarsgärd) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are enjoying a perfect vacation of pristine beaches, exceptional staff, and soaking up the sun. But guided by the seductive and mysterious Gabi (Mia Goth), they venture outside the resort grounds and find themselves in a culture filled with violence, hedonism, and untold horror. A tragic accident leaves them facing a zero tolerance policy for crime: either you’ll be executed, or, if you’re rich enough to afford it, you can watch yourself die instead.
‘Infinity Pool’ is your third feature film – how do you feel about your movies in retrospect? Do you prefer to leave them behind you and purely look forward?
BC: I definitely do not go back unless I absolutely have to. You end up watching your films so many times throughout the editing process, and even post-production. I’m pretty obsessive about checking all the versions of the film throughout the colour grading process and the sound mix. By the time you actually release a film, you’re so burned out on it. (laughs)
It’s great to hear from people, whether they love it or hate it. It’s great to know what people think of it, and to let it go and run off and have its own existence without you. I find it unbearable to watch my films once I’m done with them, because I’ve just seen them too many times.
Is there ever a sense around reading reviews and essays about your films that it’s maybe a little too invasive into your own thought process?
BC: It’s a very interesting thing, because so much creative work is done on the part of the audience. I think that the final act of creation when you’re making a film is done by the audience, because it’s such a subjective thing. You really inject so much of yourself into it as a film viewer. I think it’s especially obvious when you make movies, because what people take from them is so subjective, and so people have such wildly different interpretations of your work.
I love that. I like films that embrace that kind of ambiguity and leave room for the audience to explore and don’t – in a heavy-handed way – tell people what to think. I try to embrace that kind of filmmaking approach with my own stuff, but you certainly read people’s interpretations, and you think, “wow, that is way smarter than anything that I was thinking.” That’s quite fun; but it’s not invasive, because it’s often absolutely not what I was thinking.
I love how David Lynch puts it, that he likes movies to leave room for you to dream.
BC: Way more eloquent. (laughs)
I was overjoyed that you chose to work with Tim Hecker. What about his approach to ideas like texture and tone and instrumentation really felt like the right fit for you on ‘Infinity Pool’?
BC: It’s hard to articulate because it’s such a visceral thing for me. I love the feeling of music that’s a combination of electronic and acoustic instrumentation, and that’s the basis of a lot of what he does. I love acoustic instruments processed and deformed, and a score that drives you without being heavy-handed. It has this kind of momentum and weight to it. He seemed like someone who could bathe the film in this kind of sonic landscape, and he did. He’s brilliant and did a fantastic job.
There’s a lot of playing with non-traditional score sounds in a way that has a different impact to the more traditional melody-based approach.
BC: Yeah, completely. It was a really interesting process with him, because he started by writing while we were editing. We could start inserting things that he had written roughly into the film and see what it would take and what it would reject. We would cut a bit to his music and then talk to him about what was or wasn’t working. It was excellent to have someone who wanted to go through that process with us before we even had a film cut together – just wanting to explore textures. Some of that rough stuff is in the film, as is. The whole last cue at the end of the film, that was just something he had improvised. It fit so well that we cut to it and left it in, because that’s the level of talent he has as a musician.
You’ve collaborated a lot with your cinematographer, Karim Hussain. Having read past interviews that explored your approach to developing new filming techniques, ‘Infinity Pool’ seems like a fruition of all those experiments. Has it begun to feel like a tangible toolset to work with, or is it still just a free-flowing thing?
BC: Although ‘Infinity Pool’ is obviously an aesthetic progression from ‘Possessor’, with this process of projecting rushes and then rephotographing them through gels and glass and deforming them, there’s weirdly no one-to-one overlap. There’s nothing that we did in ‘Possessor’ that was recycled exactly in ‘Infinity Pool’, except that there was a degree of rephotographing. With ‘Infinity Pool’, a lot of it was through diopters and this dichroic film that, as you change the angle, it changes the colour. It was stuff that we never used on ‘Possessor’.
I do think that, as an aesthetic idea, we’ve now gone as far as we can with it. I’m not sure what we’re going to do for the next one. It’s not so much repeating the same thing, but a more extreme version of a language we’ve been developing. I think we’re probably done with it after this one because we want to keep exploring.
It must feel pretty good to be at a point where you feel you’ve done what you can with that approach and can now find another whole wormhole to go down.
BC: Yeah, especially because I’m getting older, and standing in Karim’s living room holding a diopter for 16 hours at a time is slowly becoming non-viable. (laughs)
Creating a feature film from start to finish is a process that presumably takes far longer than you ever imagine, because there are so many factors involved in getting the ball rolling. In your experience as a director, when a film project finally gets the go-ahead, what are the things that typically need the most revision from when you originally sat down with the concept?
BC: To be honest, once we hit preproduction, the rewrites are almost always to do with the practical limitations of the film. You write with the hope that it’s going to fall into a budgetary space that you can afford, and then you realise: “we can’t have 100 people at this party”. On ‘Infinity Pool’, there was this stunt sequence that we just did not have the time to shoot later. It was never going to happen.
I had a long script meeting with Alexander Skarsgård at the start of preproduction, and he had some extremely good thoughts about his character arc, so I tweaked a few things here and there based on our discussions. I liked what he had to say; he’s very smart about his characters. By the time it hits preproduction, you’ve done all the thematic work, and it’s just a mad scramble to make the thing filmable, basically.
It must be incredibly stressful to maintain a balance of the things that matter the most to you while making sure it actually gets out to an audience.
BC: You have to be willing to butcher the things that you love at every moment in filmmaking, because you run into so many pragmatic limitations. In the edit, sometimes you’ve shot a scene and really like it out of context. You think it turned out well: there was a great performance in there, and there was a bit of writing that you really like. You get attached to it. Those are usually the scenes that you cut last because you’re clinging to them, but everyone’s like, “it’s too long here. This doesn’t work.” You finally – grudgingly – pull it out, and you realise the film’s better without it, even though you had affection for it.
There’s not really any way of predicting what those scenes will be, is there?
BC: You try to get better at knowing what’s not going to work as you as you go along, but yeah, some stuff surprises you.
I understand you’re quite a bookworm, rather than just a film buff. Do you think a literary background has informed your approach to filmmaking in a way that might differ to somebody who’s just big on cinema?
BC: It’s hard to say, but I like to think so. Especially dialogue. I don’t want to generalize, because you can’t, but I feel like reading has helped my writing. People who don’t read a lot and only watch movies sometimes write really terrible prose. You can get a screenplay written by a professional screenwriter, and you’re just shocked by the grammar and bad descriptions.
In a sense, it’s fine – the screenplay is a blueprint and isn’t there to be a novel. But I did find that, especially early on, having even the most basic sense of how to create a sentence in a novelistic way got some attention. One of my producers told me: a script is a blueprint, but it’s also a sales document. If you only like movies and you’re making them, there’s a danger that you’ll only draw from movies, and unintentionally be making movies about movies. I don’t know that that’s true for everyone, but I certainly feel like having literary interests outside of the medium gives you another well to draw from.
Your films frequently explore intersections of identity and technology, and because they’re in a horror space, they naturally end up being rather cynical and dark stories. But I don’t get the sense that that’s how you personally feel. Do you find yourself leaning more towards fearful, hopeful or a little of both when it comes to technology?
BC: I feel both. Technology is fascinating to me, I love it. I’m not anti-technology, I’m very excited by new tech. I think new tech is used very badly and very well – it’s not really just one thing. AI is obviously the technology that’s going to define the next decade, and it’s simultaneously beyond fascinating and a total nightmare. (laughs)
The potential for AI to help humanity and also totally deface humanity both exist in equal measure. I’m sure we’re gonna see both. So yeah, I’m not inherently fearful or optimistic about technology. I love it, but it also fundamentally changes how we think, how we exist in the world, how we see ourselves, how we communicate. It’s all for better and for worse in ways that are neither good nor bad, but just totally rearranges our brains.
‘INFINITY POOL’ is in cinemas May 11.